Movie review: ‘12 Strong’ tells the true story of the ‘Horse Soldiers’
It might have 12 in its title, but make no mistake, the low-rent military drama “12 Strong” is a one-man show for Chris Hemsworth. The dreamy blue-eyed Aussie lifts the entire movie — as lightweight as it is — atop his sculpted shoulders to support a script that empties its canon of war-movie clichés. Among the arsenal: Big, CGI-enhanced battles; soldiers promising to be home by Christmas; fretful wives keeping the home fires burning; walkie-talkie static at pivotal moments. And that’s just the start.
The fact-based story — culled from Doug Stanton’s best-seller “Horse Soldiers” — finds Hemsworth leading a dozen Special Forces into Afghanistan for an extremely dangerous mission immediately after the 9/11 attacks. What this dirty dozen pulls off is a stunning military achievement, serving up Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network its worst defeat. But what should be exciting and invigorating is really dull and plodding, right down to its unoriginal title that rips off the Boston Strong motto.
There is no doubt, though, about the bravery of Hemsworth’s Capt. Mitch Nelson and his men in the Operational Detachment Alpha 595 — the first U.S. troops sent into the rugged Hindu Kush mountains. They have six weeks to unite the fragile Northern Alliance to take down Taliban stronghold Mazar-e-Sharif in November 2001. If the operation — Task Force Dagger — fails, then the whole country turns into a terrorist training camp.
The Americans team up with warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban, terrific) in northern Afghanistan. In addition to overcoming a mutual distrust and a vast cultural divide, the Americans — sans body armor and tactical vehicles — must suddenly adapt to the crude, almost primitive fighting style of its Afghani allies and fanatical attackers. They find themselves riding on horseback alongside Dostum’s troops. The movie’s strongest scenes are between Negahban (“Homeland”) and Hemsworth, playing two shrewd, courageous men, motivated by God and country. They challenge each other with questions like, “How do you love your family and leave them to go to war?” Despite their differences, Dostrum and Nelson form an uneasy bond that reportedly still stands strong today. Back then, though, they were new teammates outnumbered and outgunned by a ruthless enemy.
The most glaring flaw is the decision of director Nicolai Fuglsig and producer Jerry Bruckheimer (“Blackhawk Down”) to forgo character development. That might have worked in the recent World War II drama “Dunkirk,” where the harrowing event was the star of the film, but not here with all the emphasis on Hemsworth, taking his character on a ride from a soldier who thinks with his head to a warrior who follows his heart. Fuglsig spends little time establishing the film’s big ensemble before hurling them into the fight. The result is a cast of cookie-cutter characters — the do-anything soldier (Michael Peña, “Collateral Beauty”), the strict colonel (William Fichtner), the sergeant badass (Michael Shannon, “The Shape of Water”) and the one who minds the child soldier (Trevante Rhodes, “Moonlight”). Rounding out the team are Geoff Stults (“Only the Brave”), Thad Luckinbill (“Only the Brave”), Austin Stowell (“Bridge of Spies”), Ben O’Toole (“Hacksaw Ridge”), Austin Hebert (“Jack Reacher: Never Go Back”), Kenneth Miller (“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot”), Kenny Sheard (“13 Hours”) and Jack Kesy (TV’s “The Strain).
In the end, it’s the courage of the soldiers that prevails. Hemsworth is pegged the hero from the get-go, never wearing a helmet, hood or anything to cover up that pretty face. He struggles to mask that Australian accent, but no matter how bleak the circumstances, you just know he will swoop in and, like his superhero alter ego, Thor, will lay down the hammer — #HOOAH.
— Dana Barbuto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Pena, Navid Negahban.
(R for war violence and language throughout.)